Theatre

Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave Re-team in the Almeida’s Excellent ‘Richard III&#8217

Ralph Fiennes as Richard (Photo credit: Alastair Muir)

Rupert Goold’s spare, intense production divests Richard III of any pantomime associations and boasts an astounding performance from Ralph Fiennes as the treacherous monarch.


Richard III

Director: Rupert Goold
Venue: Almeida Theatre, London
Author: William Shakespeare
UK Release Date: 2016-06-16

Hamlet may remain the prized part for the younger Shakespearean actor, and King Lear the Holy Grail for the older, but for those aged in between, there’s no denying that Richard III still retains a strong attraction, as evidenced by the high-profile names -- including Kevin Spacey and Benedict Cumberbatch -- who’ve taken on the role in recent years.

Shakespeare’s characterisation of the monarch as a charismatic villain, merrily murdering his way to throne, may send certain historians into a fit, but the role clearly remains as appealing to actors as the play itself does to audiences. The attraction lies in part, perhaps, in the way that Shakespeare makes Richard himself a performer, counterfeiting and pretending and, at one point, essentially coaching his co-conspirator Buckingham in effective acting technique.

This emphasis on performance can turn the play into something of a pantomime; Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film version, starring Ian McKellen, arguably fell into this mode. But Rupert Goold’s excellent new production at the Almeida, which dynamically re-teams Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave after their previous collaborations in the films of The White Countess and Coriolanus, doesn’t take that route. There’s humour, certainly, in Fiennes’s witty delivery and in the memorable darkly comic performance of Daniel Cerqueira as the killer Catesby, coolly bringing out the block and axe to chop of the head of James Garnon’s Lord Hastings.

Yet, from Jon Morrell’s dark costumes to Hildegard Bechtler’s spare set to Jon Clark’s crepuscular lighting, this is a production that takes the play seriously and illuminates it in intelligent ways. A postmodernist framing device, referencing the 2013 discovery of Richard’s skeleton under a Leicester car-park, is striking but superfluous. Otherwise, though, the production, which mixes cell-phones and breastplates, offers a fine blending of the traditional and the contemporary.

At the centre, of course, is Fiennes, hunched and with his right side braced, his body seemingly at odds with itself yet frighteningly nimble when need be. Fiennes has always been a great actor, but in recent years his performances on both stage and screen (not least his superb, uninhibited turn in A Bigger Splash) have taken on a looser, more risk-taking quality. Always exceptionally clear in his delivery, with an expert approach to the soliloquies, Fiennes does terrific, surprising things in this role: whether it’s mocking Rivers with a Cockney “What, marry, may she?”, letting out a bashful “Aw!” when it’s suggested that the throne might be his, making the line “Are you Tyrrell?" into a question for the audience, turning on Hastings with startling ferocity, or chillingly letting his mask of benevolence slip when Baxter Westby’s bound-for-the-Tower Prince Edward jumps on his back.

The dramatic face-offs with Joanna Vanderham’s strongly characterised Lady Anne and with Aislín McGuckin’s Queen Elizabeth, are particularly disturbing, Fiennes grabbing the crotch of the former and forcing the latter to the floor in a full-on sexual assault, before railing against “shallow, changing woman” in a moment that powerfully exposes the character’s violent misogyny.

Redgrave, always bold and inventive, makes something equally original of the mad prophetess Margaret. Boiler-suited and carrying a battered doll as the emblem of the character’s losses, she dispenses her curses with stealth rather than stridency, wiggling her finger as she refers to “the worm of conscience”, kissing and caressing the doll (and reacting with open-mouthed horror as Fiennes grabs its head) and, in a great moment, finally passing her mantle of insight and grief to McGuckin’s Elizabeth.

Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret and Ralph Fiennes as Richard (Photo credit: Alastair Muir)

Of the play’s female characters, the critic John Jowett has noted: “Shakespeare empowers them as chroniclers, the voices of those who understand and know.” Redgrave, in particular, embodies that understanding and knowledge here.

Although the production makes good use of the Almeida’s intimate space, Goold’s staging has some problems. The imperfect construction of the play leads to some awkward transitions, “The Citizens” scene feels under-directed, and a couple of the performances aren’t everything they might be: Susan Engel, for one, indulges in some surprising hamming as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York. Complaints about pace during the preview period may also have resulted in the ending now feeling rushed: the eve-of-Bosworth apparition scene is effectively and unfussily done, and Fiennes invests Richard's fractured final soliloquy with a compelling mixture of self-justification, self-hatred and vulnerability.

Yet the battle itself, with blaring lights and a very weedy rain effect, feels somehow stilted, leading to a muted finalé. Still, Goold’s production is essential viewing, not least for the chance to see one of our finest actors at the very top of his game.

Richard III is booking at the Almeida until 6 August. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 21 July as the first “Almeida Live” broadcast.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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